Asia continues to work to define itself as it moves out of the influence of post-war occupations, colonialism, monarchies and oppressive regimes and into modern market-driven economies with varying levels of democracy. Asian countries are being challenged to be global players politically, economically and militarily. China is beginning to flex its military might and many in Korea and Japan are questioning the continued presence of American military bases as they build their own militaries and independence.
Korea and China are still demanding that Japan apologise for the atrocities committed during their occupation. Japan has yet to be fully open about its past with its own citizens; the latest film on Pearl Harbor was significantly edited for the Japanese audience. Japanese acceptance of the Zainichi, Koreans who came to Japan during the years of colonization in 1910-1945, still remains a problem.
At the same time there is a cultural turnaround, as never before have all things Korean been so popular in Japan. A huge wave of Japanese tourists is visiting Korea for the first time and two Korean films, Windstruck and My Sassy Girl, have set new box-office records in Japan. A current trend in Japan are films that show “pure love “ or junai, and two Korean films, April Snow and The Duelist, were recently purchased for record amounts by Japanese film companies. Korean films have enjoyed a 50% share of the local market and exponentially rising exports.
Asian filmmakers are working against this dynamic political backdrop to reflect the changing values and traditions of its people. The freedom to film sensitive topics and to express themselves openly varies from country to country, which is reflected in the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. A recurrent theme running through the films that I saw in this year’s Berlinale was the plight of the individual as one meets the demands and restraints of society. It is in these moments of confrontation that one’s character is tested and one’s strengths and weaknesses exposed. How each individual chooses to react to varying circumstances displays the very breadth and potential of human behavior.
Peacock, directed by Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine, The Gingerbread Man, Hurlyburly), started as a screenplay written by Li Quiang about a family living in the small village of Anyang during the late 70s and early 80s, at the end of the cultural revolution and during China’s transition from a planned economy. A free-spirited young woman watches a platoon of paratroopers fall to the ground around her, and she tries to join the elite military group but is rejected. An affair with an older musician ends in a scandal, and she marries for practical reasons. Her older brother, mentally retarded and overweight, is teased by all in spite of the attempts of the parents to protect him. Eventually his mother pays a crippled farm girl to marry him. The younger brother is humiliated by his older brother, leaves town, marries and eventually returns.
Peacock is a story of transformation and growth. This type of small city involves the humblest of existences. “To understand this kind of town is to feel and understand the hopes, dreams, aspirations, despair, anguish, acceptance and serenity pursued by the characters,” states director Gu Changwei. He adds, “I want to capture the impossibilities of life and, ultimately, people\'s vitality in spite of that.” The last scene shows the family visiting the peacock at the zoo, waving their handkerchiefs and shouting, “You’re not as colorful as my handkerchief,” a common event for families in the Chinese New Year. That display of beauty is what people longed for and aspired to.
Chun Hua Kai (Plastic Flowers) by Liu Bingjian portrays a young woman who struggles to manage a small artificial flower factory that she has inherited from her deceased husband. Chun Hua develops an interest in a new employee, Qiusheng, a sensitive young man who plays the flute and stutters. But her desire fades away quickly, and she soon has a new relationship with another new employee, Wang, a flower designer, who swears to be Qiusheng’s good friend. Painful lessons on love, lies and rejection. The symbolism is obvious as China struggles to deal with the new and cold competitive market forces that seem to control one’s destiny, where personal relationships and loyalty appear to mean less and less. The Chinese nouveau riche are once again the target of animosity and scorn as many are left behind in a fast developing new economy.
In This Charming Girl (written and directed by Lee Yoon-ki), Jeong-hae leads a very ordinary life. She works at the post office and lives alone in a small apartment with a kitten that she found in the garden. Jeong-hae also lives with a painful memory from when she was 15 years old and the later loss of her mother. One day someone enters her world and forces her to make a difficult change from her previously safe and orderly life.
“This film tries to express a little feeling of love, the tiny waves it creates in a person’s life and how that can influence it in an extreme and ironic situation. I also hope that the sadness and little wavering in Jeong-hae’s heart will be conveyed to our hearts as well, because this is something that we easily miss out on in times like these,” offered director Lee Yoon-ki. With this debut film he was awarded the top prize for young Asian directors at the Pusan International Film Festival and is currently working on Love Talk, which is about the lonely lives of Korean immigrants in America.
The Korean film industry has been criticised for presenting in both mainstream and art films a predominantly male point of view. This Charming Girl was produced with the aim to introduce a director with mature filmmaking sensibilities and to present an original way of recreating a women’s psyche. “In Korean filmmaking, a shortage of actresses has brought about a trend of male-oriented films…..there is a need to discover actresses with genuineness and solid training,” commented the executive producer Lee Seung-jae.
Fortunately, Kim Ji-Soo was able to delicately portray the wounded girl’s inner state and emotional growth. She says, “It was the character of Jeong-hae with her strange quietness and memories, as well as her newly found stirrings of love that attracted her to the part.” The use of the sometimes shaky handheld camera and natural lighting helped to create a feeling of intimacy and sensitivity, and a sense of vulnerability and instability in Jeong-hae’s world.
Nok-Saek-Eui-Ja (Green Chair) by Park Chul-soo is about a steamy love affair with a young boy which puts a married woman on the wrong side of the law, as sex with minors under 20 is illegal in Korea. But even after a short time in jail and community service work in a senior home, she does not abandon her loyal lover. To celebrate his 20th birthday and his coming of age, interesting guests were invited: his parents, her parents, her ex-husband, the local vice squad, a woman from the senior home and her caretaker, and a wannabe girlfriend that constantly calls him on her cell phone. In the end everyone is convinced not only of the bravery and maturity of the young man but of their sincere love for one another as well. Suh Jung and Shim Ji-ho ably communicate the intensity of a sexual relationship that is loyal and doubtful, honest and insecure as well as jealous and carefree. The film was also selected for the International film category at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sun, part three of a tetralogy by Alexander Sokurov, is a European-produced film by a Russian director. It is Sokurov’s third film about powerful historical figures who suffer personal tragedy. Moloch showed Hitler’s personal collapse at the end of the war and Taurus depicted Lenin, violent until his end and not willing to lose power or surrender to death.
The Japanese Emperor Hirohito shows the possibility of a different, less tragic ending. “Emperor Hirohito is a symbol of a constructive finale or, more accurately, not a finale but a continuation of life. It is possible to see with an inner gaze, ruins in a destroyed city, but one can also see dozens of spared buildings – to put it in perspective. For that there is the need of a special human nature,“ said director Alexander Sokurov.
On August 15, 1946, the emperor appealed to the Japanese people over the radio to cease all military operations. This would save many lives as a peaceful end of the war and a peaceful occupation of Japan by Allied forces could begin. Although the leaders of China, Great Britain, the USSR and many Americans wanted the Emperor prosecuted by a military tribunal, General Douglas MacArthur wanted an honorable peace for Japan. That allowed the millions of defeated Japanese soldiers to accept the conditions for peace and end the war.
The film shows several of the meetings between Hirohito and MacArthur. At times the Emperor was shown to be almost childlike in his actions and interests. However, in his memoirs MacArthur wrote, “The Emperor took the responsibility for all the actions of the Japanese government and armed forces, clearly understanding that it threatened him with unavoidable trial and death. I was amazed. He was an Emperor by birth, but at that moment I realized that I met the first Japanese gentleman judged by the strength of his courage.”
The Emperor of Japan was also the 124th descendent of the Goddess Amaterasu, and Hirohito on New Year’s Day in 1947 bravely renounced his divine status and demonstrated the possibility to lose power and yet retain dignity and grace.
Nijushi No Hitomi (Twenty-four Eyes): the festival celebrated the 110th anniversary of the oldest, most significant Japanese film studio Shochiku with the Berlinale Camera Award. The classic Shochiku film, Twenty-four Eyes, was a 1928 story of an enterprising and beloved young school teacher in an isolated coastal village. The film follows the lives of these twelve students over several decades, and very subtly shows the individual suffering from the Second World War.